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Confronting the Deep Roots of Violence in El Salvador

Roberto Lovato’s “Unforgetting” explores the traumatic history of a country torn apart by wars and gangs—and the dangers of not facing the past.

Government militia patrol a village in El Salvador during the civil war.
Max Schneider/Getty Images
Government militias patrol a village in northern El Salvador during the country’s brutal civil war.

In 1982, Joan Didion famously wrote of El Salvador that “terror is the given of the place.” At the time, the country was in the midst of a civil war, which pitted the leftist guerrillas of the Faribundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, against the country’s military, supported and armed by the United States. During the war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992, some 50,000 civilians were killed, with the lion’s share of atrocities committed by the military. The conflict compelled more than a quarter of the country’s 4.5 million people to seek safety in nearby countries as well as the U.S., where most were denied asylum despite the bloody conditions they were fleeing.

Roberto Lovato has no illusions about the violence that has permeated the history of El Salvador. However, his debut book, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution, is determined to unravel the many stereotypes that outsiders like Didion have perpetuated about the country, to make room for new insights about the trauma that generations of Salvadorans have endured.

by Roberto Lovato
Harper, 352 pp., $26.99

Lovato, who is Salvadoran-American, claims early on that his book seeks to explore the roots of gang violence in El Salvador, but it is about much more than that. Unforgetting covers a lot of ground, jumping between time periods, characters, countries, and even genres. It is part memoir, part reported narrative, and even part crónica, or chronicle, a genre first made famous by Gabriel García Márquez that straddles the line between fiction and journalism.

Sections of the book narrate Lovato’s childhood in the Mission District of San Francisco in the 1970s, where he was raised by two immigrant parents. Another, set in the 1920s, reconstructs the childhood of his father, with whom Lovato has a tense and occasionally violent relationship. Significant portions take place during the Salvadoran civil war, when Lovato was deeply involved in solidarity efforts with the FMLN. Another part of the book takes place in 2015, when an interview with a Salvadoran child held in immigrant detention in Karnes, Texas, motivates Lovato to report on what has driven so many to seek refuge outside of El Salvador.

The book illuminates the depths of violence that have shaped El Salvador: from the wiping out of large swaths of Indigenous people during the colonial period to the 1932 matanza, or massacre, carried out by the army, which the historian Anders Sandberg, quoted by Lovato, calls one of the “most violent episodes of the modern era.” Then there are the atrocities of the civil war, like the 1981 El Mozote massacre, during which military officers, funded and abetted by the U.S., wiped out an entire town in the course of one day.

The violence didn’t end with the war, and U.S. policy was a large reason why. El Salvador’s most notorious gangs, or maras, were established in Los Angeles, and thousands of their members were deported after the war ended. In the U.S., Salvadoran youth had established the maras to protect themselves from larger street gangs, and dealt mostly in petty crime. But once they returned to postwar El Salvador, with few educational or job opportunities, they built ranks. Since then, they’ve grown more lethal and violent. The government has promoted various mano dura, or hard-fisted, militarized strategies against them, executed by an underpaid police force well-known for abuses. As Lovato writes, many of these strategies have been underwritten by the U.S., and some even developed out of the broken windows policing that emerged in our inner cities in the 1990s.

This messy soup of violence and terror persists, Lovato concludes, because of the country’s inability to reckon with its past, on both the personal and political level. During the course of the book, he experiences firsthand “the Salvadoran state’s need to silence the slaughter that has made it one of the most consistently violent patrias since the nineteenth century.” During a 2015 reporting trip, authorities force him to delete recordings of his interview with a researcher who works on uncovering and identifying the remains of mass graves, where gang members—and, it’s suggested, police and military-affiliated death squads—bury their victims.

Covering up this trauma has rendered Salvadorans “half-dead,” in the words of the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. El Salvador is an “amnesiac country,” as a researcher explains to Lovato. Hence the title of Lovato’s book: “Unforgetting” is both a salve and a way of exposing the truth.

This principle has served as the basis for the establishment of truth-and-reconciliation-style commissions in El Salvador and elsewhere. However, paired with broad amnesty laws that let state perpetrators of violence off the hook, such commissions have often fallen short of their intended goals, an issue that has been explored extensively in scholarship on historical memory, in books like Martha Minow’s Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, as well as in a number of popular works such as Patricio Guzmán’s documentary on the Chilean dictatorship, Nostalgia por la Luz.

Yet because Unforgetting is so personal, it has much to add to the conversation on historical memory. The insights Lovato gleans about his own country’s history ultimately allow him “to understand my family in a more complicated way, one that accommodated both its lightness and its darkness,” he writes. Much of the book’s power comes from its exploration of Lovato’s own wide-ranging life experiences, from child bookworm to teen vagrant to revolucionario to independent scholar and activist. Memoir gives the book an authenticity lacking in works by authors like Didion. He neither judges nor romanticizes the gang members he meets, speaking honestly to their struggles while never absolving them of their often violent behavior.

Lovato’s writing about memory and reconciliation speaks powerfully to a truth that Didion never took the time to really see: that terror is never a given but rather a consequence of how power is wielded in history.